When Sayid Abdullaev sought asylum in the United States in 2012, he had $30 in his pocket and a vision to work for LGBT equality.
As a 10-year-old in Kyrgyzstan, part of the former Soviet Union in Central Asia, Abdullaev started an organization to promote acceptance of cultural differences.
His grandparents had fled China (they ran away barefoot, Abdullaev said) because they were Uyghurs, an ethnic minority, and were forced to work in the fields. Uyghurs continued to be poorly treated in Kyrgyzstan, he said.
Abdullaev promoted social justice as he grew and traveled extensively. He studied abroad in the United States in high school and spent a year at a college in Idaho.
“I realized I wasn’t doing as good a job with my causes because I hadn’t told the truth about myself yet,” said Abdullaev, who is gay. “I didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about being out or LGBT [at home]. I was scared to come out. It was dangerous."
In fact, Kyrgyzstan is close to passing a law similar to Russia’s anti-LGBT “propaganda” law, which would punish people with jail time and other consequences for expressing sentiments that “create a positive attitude to unconventional sexual orientation,” according to the Human Rights Campaign.
In Abdullaev’s early years of college, his mother became very sick and he returned home to see her one last time. He suspected she did not receive the best medical care because she was an ethnic minority.
“I came out when my mom passed away,” Abdullaev said. “I wanted to be myself. I spoke against government intervention.”
But he wasn’t well-received by other Kyrgyz. He said he started receiving death threats and faced physical and emotional abuse when he left his house. He worried about the safety of his father and brother.
Ultimately, Abdullaev earned a Point Foundation Scholarship from the National LGBTQ Scholarship Fund and enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. The scholarship required completion of an LGBT-related project.
Abdullaev’s idea — for a comprehensive, online database to list resources for people who must flee their countries to avoid legal persecution for being LGBT — took shape on Penn’s campus.
He met Katie Sgarro while rushing the community-service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega. In the summer of 2014, they got to work on AsylumConnect, a website that organizes information about LGBT-friendly legal, medical, housing, food and other resources by location across the country.
The Penn years
There are about 300,000 LGBT asylum seekers around the world, Abdullaev said. Sgarro, a health and societies major at Penn, said she hadn’t heard of the vast numbers of people who seek asylum specifically because they belong to the LGBT community.
She knew she wanted to help Abdullaev, but it gave her pause about the way she related to her own identity.
“I was a little intimidated,” Sgarro said. “I knew I’d have to be more open.”
Abdullaev was one of the first people Sgarro told she was gay. She said he helped her through her coming-out process.
“I just really trusted him,” said Sgarro, who grew up in Barrington, R.I. “I have so much respect for someone willing to fight for his rights. It moves me to take my own action.
“The more people are public about it,” she said, “the more likely it is for global LGBT rights to get the attention they deserve.”
Abdullaev and Sgarro entered the idea for AsylumConnect in the President’s Engagement Prizes, an initiative started last year at Penn. The prize, according to the university, awards up to $150,000 for living expenses and up to $100,000 for implementation expenses for a local, national or global project.
AsylumConnect made it to the semi-finals, but didn’t win the prize.
“We ultimately had to think of how important this was for us when we found out we lost,” Sgarro said. “We knew this had potential to impact a lot of people. But how would we do this without money?”
Sgarro and Abdullaev, who studied political science and international relations, both graduated from Penn this year.
Sgarro deferred grad school. She originally planned to enroll at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for a master’s in health administration. Now she spends her days applying for fellowships and adding resources to AsylumConnect, while earning a certificate in nonprofit administration from the Fels Institute of Government at Penn.
Abdullaev, who lives in Bethlehem now, splits his time between AsylumConnect and working on a fellowship in which he serves as a consultant to make sure businesses operate in an LGBT-friendly way.
Earlier this year, Sgarro won the Millennium Peace Prize, which came with a $5,000 payout. The money will go toward expenses like running the website and maintaining email addresses, she said.
Sgarro also gets the chance to participate in a United Nations campaign through the Millennium Campus Conference. She will present information about AsylumConnect to 500 student delegates from around the world at several interactive webinars over the next year. Some come from countries where being gay is illegal.
“Some said they’d never seen a gay person,” Sgarro said. “They don’t really have a face on LGBT rights, so it’s just a theoretical evil. We have to speak out where we can.”
Abdullaev also serves as a youth representative to the United Nations.
“They’ve maintained a pretty high level of energy, creativity and ability to think outside the box,” said Fernando Chang-Muy, a lecturer in law at Penn. He mentored the pair on their application for the President’s Engagement Prize.
“I just admire these two young people for applying all the theoretical concepts they learned in the classroom for the public interest.”
Chang-Muy, who teaches refugee law and policy, said promoting AsylumConnect is the biggest hurdle. He gave the example that someone stepping off a plane from Liberia in Philadelphia will have to know that going to AsylumConnect.org should be his or her first step.
“One of their strategies is not to replicate the wheel,” Chang-Muy said. “They could be yet another prong that [refugee] nonprofits can use to connect their clients to resources.”
Sgarro said the guidance she and Abdullaev have received from Penn faculty has been phenomenal. They’re always on the lookout for more mentors to add their expertise to the advisory board for AsylumConnect.
Subhi Nahas, an LGBT refugee from Syria, sits on the board of advisors. He spoke at the U.N. Security Council’s first meeting on LGBT rights over the summer.
President Barack Obama made an initial push for nations across the globe to aid LGBT people who fear for their lives when he addressed the U.N. General Assembly in 2011. White House officials noted 76 countries in attendance had laws making same-sex acts illegal and five could legally punish same-sex acts with death.
“We must stand up for the rights of gays and lesbians everywhere,” Obama said during his address.
It wasn’t until Aug. 24 that the U.N. Security Council held its first meeting on LGBT issues in the wake of crimes perpetrated against LGBT people by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
“This historic event recognizes that the issue of LGBT rights has a place in the U.N. Security Council,” said John Kirby, spokesman for the State Department, in a statement in August. “Around the world, the U.N. has documented thousands of cases of individuals killed or injured in brutal attacks simply because they are LGBT or perceived to be LGBT.”
“No one should be harmed or have their basic human rights denied because of who they are and who they love,” Kirby continued.
Assembling the team
AsylumConnect now boasts an 11-member team; nearly all participants are under 25. Many joined the team over the summer.
Sean Buckley became chief financial officer in July. He went to high school with Sgarro and will graduate with a finance degree from Georgetown University in May. He said he came out within weeks of Sgarro.
“We struggled with coming to terms with our sexual orientations,” said Buckley, a Republican. “But we both realized we were free to have these struggles without too much fear of government persecution.”
“Given all the progress being made in the U.S. with the freedom to marry and almost 70 percent of Americans in favor of nondiscrimination laws, it’s easy to forget the pendulum is almost swinging backward in a lot of the rest of the world.”
Buckley works with AsylumConnect on the strategic vision and its business model. The organization is not a 501c3. Buckley said the team is considering whether to function as a full nonprofit or a hybrid.
Tiff Lu, software developer, met Sgarro and Abdullaev at Alpha Phi Omega. She identifies as pansexual and is heavily involved in LGBT advocacy at Penn. Her thesis focuses on social-impact technology.
Lu works on user experience and web development for AsylumConnect. Some of her goals for the project include creating a mobile app, offering the ability to search resources with multiple tags and a chat client. Lu expects a redesigned version of the website to launch in the new year.
Emma Biegacki, director of catalogue, has a background in cultural and medical anthropology. She studied in the same academic program as Sgarro.
Biegacki developed interview questions for asylum seekers to help improve AsylumConnect. She wants to ask asylum seekers what tools are useful for them and if the website should use more visual or cross-language symbols. She will work with the team to conduct interviews starting in November.
Biegacki works in HIV/AIDS care in Philadelphia. She said AsylumConnect is important because it gives agency to an oppressed population.
“It’s important to me to develop models of care that directly empower and directly involve the individuals you’re serving,” she said.
Matthew Keating, the youngest member of AsylumConnect, works as the director of partnerships while he studies in Belgium during a gap year before college. He is gay and has worked with political campaigns, nonprofits and the International Youth Council, part of the Youth Assembly at the United Nations.
Keating reaches out to other nonprofits that focus on asylum seekers and refugees to see how AsylumConnect can work with them. He also emails resource organizations in the catalogue to verify that they are LGBT-friendly.
“I’ve realized how small the world is in terms of how the LGBT community helps each other,” said Keating, who noted he runs across the same individuals and organizations whenever he researches resources.
“It’s nice to see how far-reaching our efforts are.”
For more information, visit www.asylumconnect.org.